Review by Gregory Moomjy
According to legend, a rather high-profile gaffe occurred at the world premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. At that time, he was almost completely deaf. However, regardless of his hearing, Beethoven was never one to write for the voice. Consequently, during rehearsals the Maestro faced many a disgruntled soprano who could not comply with the demands of holding an extremely high note for an inhuman amount of time. Finally, at her wits end, one of the sopranos realized, wait a minute, he’s deaf. She told her colleagues they could comply with Beethoven’s wishes and all they had to do was open and close their mouth, when needed, without making a sound.
And that, dear readers, is the story of how Beethoven was outwitted by a gaggle of sopranos.
As amusing as that anecdote is, it might help explain why Beethoven only wrote one complete opera; he couldn’t write for the voice. The irony is that one opera, Fidelio, has multiple interpretations as well as a somewhat convoluted compositional history. At its heart Leonore, a noble woman, dresses in drag to get hired as an errand boy, Fidelio, at the nearby prison in order to rescue her husband, Florestan. Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison has been maltreating his prisoners, specifically torturing Florestan for informing on him to the authorities. Although the opera premiere was unsuccessful, it became extremely popular in Vienna around the defeat of Napoleon. Additionally, the works depiction of a woman who risks everything to save her husband was seen as a reaction to other operas like Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti, which among other things questioned the morality and constancy of women.
Fidelio also has a twisted compositional history. Most opera lovers know that there are three overtures known as the Leonore Overtures. The opera was originally called Leonore. Beethoven’s problem, as you might guess, was that he could not write a decent overture that wouldn’t give away the entire story before the opera had even begun. Occasionally, there would be a conductor like Leonard Bernstein who played the Third Overture, right before the final scene, when the prisoners are liberated. But, in those cases the overture becomes more of a tone poem – an orchestral synopsis of at least the preceding climatic scene. There were other changes to the score as well, such as an aria for Florestan of which only the melody exists. The performance at Opera Lafayette began with Leonore II, which, according to Brown, is very similar to Leonore III. There also is an incomplete aria for Floresan.
That aria has yet to be fully orchestrated or at least that was the case until very recently in this year. Those who love 19th century Italian opera will know conductor Will Crutchfield. He is no stranger to rewriting instrumental parts for fragmented arias. His work on Rossini’s Aurelliano en Palmira lead to recognition at the International Opera Awards for Best Rediscovered Work. When Opera Lafayette’s Artistic Director, Ryan Brown who was the impetus for the project approached him for their performances of Leonore, both in Washington DC and New York, they asked him to re-create Florestan’s aria. We know from Fidelio that when Florestan opens the second act he begins by wallowing in his subterranean prison cell and then has a vision of Leonore as an angel taking him to freedom. However, the new aria which Opera Lafayette performed has a different focal point It centers more on why Florestan is in prison and his unshakeable belief that despite how things turned out, both he and his wife can take comfort in the knowledge that he did the right thing. According to Crutchfield, this aria will not be eligible for inclusion in the next critical edition of Fidelio because even though Beethoven was able to complete the melody, too much of the accompaniment and orchestration was missing for it to be called Beethoven’s work.
It was a great performance of a piece that offers valuable insight into writing an opera. After seeing it at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, I realized the question is not could Beethoven write for the voice, but rather, could he write an opera? In other words, could he write music that drives the emotional development of characters and a plot? The answer is yes he could. And that opera is Fidelio.
The vocal music is beautiful. There is a charming duet for Leonore, Nathalie Paulin, and Marzelline, Pascale Beaudin, in Act 2 in which the singers blended their voices to wonderful effect. Additionally, much of the music is familiar from Fidelio, it’s just expanded and in a different order. Therein however lies the problem. The music is too expansive and repetitive. The way the libretto is divided into arias and ensembles, it puts too much emphasis on things that aren’t important to the main thrust of the story.
Despite its bumpy performance history, Fidelio has retained its appeal due to its depiction of courage in the face of tyranny. Not only did its popularity in Vienna surge after Napoleon’s defeat, but it was also performed in the prison that held Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, Leonore’s three-act form takes attention away from Florestan’s torture, and his wife’s struggles to free him.
For instance, here Beethoven devotes the entire first act to the love triangle between Leonore/Fidelio, Marzelline, the warden’s daughter, and the deputy Jaquino (played here by Kevin Geddes). By contrast, this domestic comedy only occupies the first quarter of Fidelio’s two acts. This format eases the audience in. However, as soon as Don Pizarro, Matthew Collin, the corrupt governor of the prison makes his entrance, it is clear this is a harrowing Rescue Opera.
Fidelio is streamlined in other crucial ways. The love duet for the reunited husband and wife after Florestan is almost murdered is greatly shortened. The same can be said of the preceding scene, where the two lay on the floor, dumbstruck at the trauma they had just survived. In reality, this is a totally understandable reaction. However, in the theater this caused a lull in the action. In Fidelio, two lines of dialogue perfectly convey the shock and joy the characters feel. Florestan asks, “Leonore, what have you done for me?” She replies, “it was nothing Florestan, it was nothing.” Beethoven increased the dialogue at other points as well. Such as when Leonore disobeys Pizarro’s orders, taking it upon herself to open the prisoner’s cells, offering them a small taste of freedom. Such snippets of dialogue show Leonore to be the strong woman she is.
That said, some of the novelty was definitely worthwhile. Florestan’s aria is a poignant piece that lends gravitas to his plight. Here Jean-Michel Richer sung with clarity, and sweetness. It’s a sobering aria that leaves no doubt what he risked reporting Pizarro to the authorities. It was also interesting to hear the second Leonore Overture in its proper context at the beginning of the opera.
I don’t know if I’d see Leonore again, Beethoven wrote beautiful music, but it’s clear he needed an editor. On the whole, the piece is too long and lacks dramatic focus. Nonetheless, I applaud Opera Lafayette and Ryan Brown for their work here. You don’t need to be a musicologist to appreciate greater insight into a composer’s process. If the performance is as good as this was, well, that’s just icing on the cake!